Readings

Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie) and Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie). These were the second two books in the Ancillary series, following the story of Justice of Toren, the last remnant of a ship AI, and her struggle to maintain order and do right by people. The last two felt a bit more feel-good than the first one, which had a more ambiguous arc, but I really enjoyed these books. Given how rough the semester was for me, it was nice to occasionally sink into a story.

Child of All Nations (Pramoedya Ananta Toer). A sequel to This Earth of Mankind and part of the Buru quartet, this novel follows the story of Minke, an young Indonesian man in the late 19th century who was educated in a Dutch-mediun school on Java. Minke, now a graduate, runs up against colonialism in its many ugly forms, from outright theft to the moderate incremental anti-colonialists. In this book we can see him struggle towards and understanding and of and connection to the cause of Natives on their own terms. He starts to see things from heir eyes, in particular the struggle of tenant farmers. I’m looking forward to reading the last two books!

Colline (Jean Giono). I picked this up on an impulse at the NYPL (it was in the new books section) since I generally learn a lot from reading the NYRB series of reprints — they are things I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. This is Giono’s first novel — his experience in WWI (he was at Verdun) affected him deeply, and apparently many of his books deal with the relationship between humans and nature. This is about a small community in Provence which experiences a series of mysterious and terrifying events — perhaps they have violated nature and are being punished, but perhaps they can root out the evil that curses them and kill it. Is all that we humans do? Killing and scything and scarring nature? Recommended if you like sketchily narrated books with lots of pastoral mysticism.

The Day of The Owl (Leonardo Sciascia). This is one of the first novels about the Mafia — at the time (the early 60s) people were debating whether the mafia really existed or not. The book follows the investigation of a murder by a zealous carabinieri, Inspector Bellodi. His investigation is hampered by intransigent witnesses and Sciascia keeps up a running commentary from Bellodi’s subordinates’ internal monologue to faceless individuals discussing the progress of his investigation. The tone is slightly humorous, despite the body count. The preface really helped contextualize the novel. Without having grown up in Italy I don’t think I would have understood the relationship between Sicily and the rest of Italy, the omnipresence of and complete silence about the Mafia, and the politics of mid-20th century Italy. Recommended for those who like historical detective novels (plus it’s a quick read).

The Tijuana Book of the Dear (Luis Alberto Urrea). I haven’t read poetry in ages so this was a welcome change of pace for me. Urrea’s collection, as the title suggests, is about the borderlands. It’s also about his becoming a poet — one poem describes him copying out poems on a battered typewriter, producing a “second rate Morrison. / a $4.95 Bukowski. / a $1.98 Wakoski.” Unsurprisingly, I liked the overtly political ones, like Arizona Lamentation, which says “This was always Odin’s garden / A clean white place,” and “No Mexican was ever born / In our land,” lamenting that

We had something grand here
We had family values, we had clean sidewalks.

Then these strangers came. These mudmen.
They invaded our dream

And colored it.

There are also some striking love poems. I really enjoyed the dark humor in Urrea’s poems. Maybe this will start a summer of poetry for me.

Readings

Inverted World [Christopher Priest]. A science-fiction novel, but of a piece with a writer like M. John Harrison — there’s a kind of disconnect and a focus on the conceptual world building rather than the nitty-gritty you get with Iain M. Banks. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say it’s set in a city which moves through the world, always trying to be at a place called optimum. The city is on rails — it constantly builds fresh tracks ahead of it and winches itself forward a tenth of a mile per day. The city is run by a guild system of track layers, traction experts, bridge builders, surveyors, and the like. The protagonist, Helward Mann, takes an oath and joins a guild as an apprentice. The book follows his progress as he learns, and we learn, more about the strange world through which the city moves. Recommended if you like heady, somewhat retro, post-apocalyptic conceptual fiction.

Luka and the Fire of Life [Salman Rushdie]. A re-read for me, this didn’t hold up as well the second time around. I much prefer Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I can read over and over again.

Boxers and Saints [Gene Luen Yang]. A great two-part graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion in China. Chances are you don’t know much about this history. You won’t necessarily get a history lesson from this book, but you will want to learn more about it.

The Adventures of Augie March [Saul Bellow]. After leaving Chicago I have decided to read more books set in Chicago so that I can miss it more. I had read this book before but it was a rushed job. This time I let myself longer a bit more over Bellow’s language. It’s epic and scope and gave me a view of Chicago and the Great Depression that I hadn’t had before. Indeed, given our current economic woes, it was an interesting comparison to see the similarities (the rich are still pretty rich, and if you can get employed by them, you may do ok) and the dissimilarities.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation [John Gertner]. A history of Bell Labs and a must-read for researchers who work on anything related to computing, communications, or applied physics and chemistry. It’s not all rah-rah, and while Gertner takes the “profiles of the personalities” approaches to writing about the place, I am sure there will be things in there that would surprise even the die-hard Shannonistas who may read this blog…

Readings

Sorry Please Thank You: Stories [Charles Yu] — collection of short stories by the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Cute, heart wrenching, cutting, it’s all in here. They are more like snapshots than anything else, or fiction experiments. People may think that Yu is writing science fiction but space opera this is not. Some of the best ones are like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills — you wonder what the rest of the world is that engendered the slice you saw.

After Dark [Haruki Murakami] — this novel felt a bit more spare and ephemeral than some of Murakami’s earlier works. It’s certainly not as sprawling as 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore, but weeks later I still feel it’s a little haunting. Fans of Murakami will enjoy it because it’s different but I’m not sure it would make a good introduction to his work.

That Thing Around Your Neck [Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie] — a collection of short stories set in both Nigeria and the US. It’s a glimpse into a certain slice of the Nigerian immigrant community which I found both familiar (from similarities to the South Asian experience) and different (how Biafra looms large). I’m reading Americanah, her latest novel, right now, but this was available from the library earlier. I recommend it highly.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents [Terry Pratchett] — a cute twist on the Pied Piper thing. It’s Discworld without being too Discworld, and would have been totally up my alley when I was a kid. It’s a little less serious than Diana Wynne Jones, for example, but the humor adds to the adventure, rather than distracting from it (that may be a matter of taste though). A good present for kids at that early-YA reading level.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane [Neil Gaiman] — like the Murakami, this rural English weirding fairytale felt familiar and wistful. Unlike the Murakami, however, I found it a bit spare and… predictable I guess. That’s not wholly a bad thing, but I don’t find myself wanting to read it again, like, say, Neverwhere.

The Girl From Foreign [Sadia Shepherd] — a lovely memoir by a Pakistani-American woman who discovers her grandmother was originally from the Bene Israel community of the Konkan coast. She goes to rediscover her Jewish roots in India and indeed, to discover this community. Definitely recommended for those who like historical memoir travelogues (think of Ghosh’s In An Antique Land, which is also a wonderful book).

Readings

The Wizard of The Crow [N’gugi wa Thiong’o] — This is an epic political farce about an African dictatorship. It’s a bit slow getting into it, but once I was about 70 pages in I was hooked. It’s absolutely hilarious and tragic at the same time. I’ve not read a book like this in a while. Ngugi’s imagination is broad and open, so the absurd situations just keep escalating and mutating. One of the effects is that if you looked at the situation midway through the book, you would ordinarily have no idea how things came to such a state, but thanks to the storytelling you can see the absurd (yet stepwise somewhat reasonable) sequence of events that led there. From now on I will always have the phrase “queueing mania” in my head. Highly recommended.

Proofs and Refutations [Imre Lakatos] — “Why did I not read this book years ago?” I asked myself about a third of the way through this book. Lakatos breaks down the process of mathematical reasoning by example, showing how arguments (and statements) are refined through an alternating process of proof-strategies and counterexamples. It’s a bit of a dry read but it made me more excited about trying to take on some new and meatier theoretical problems. It also made me want to read some Feyerabend, which I am doing now…

The Crown of Embers [Rae Carson] — a continuation of Carson’s YA series set in a sort of pseudo Spanish colonialist fantasy land. It’s hard to parse out the politics of it, but I’m willing to see where the series goes before deciding if it is really subverts the typical racial essentialization that’s typical of fantasy. The colonial aspect of it makes it most problematic.

The Wee Free Men [Terry Pratchett] — a YA Discworld novel. Feels fresher than the other later Pratchett Discworld books.

Equal Rites [Terry Pratchett] — an early Discworld novel. Feels a little thinner than some of the others, but it had some cute moments.

The Republic of Wine [Mo Yan] — Another political farce, this time set in China. This has to be one of the more grotesque and crass novels I have read… maybe ever. The title might be better translated (and Americanized) as “Boozelandia.” The novel is part correspondence between an author (named Mo Yan) and an aspiring writer from the state of “Liquorland,” partly short stories by said aspiring writer, and partly a story about an investigator sent to ascertain whether state officials are raising children to be eaten at fancy dinners. It’s got a kind of gonzo style that will definitely appeal to some. I liked it in the end but I was also totally unaware of what I was getting into when I opened it.

Readings

How to Survive in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu) – Not the book you think it is. This was a fantastic read, a meditation on loss and time and memory and connections. Sure there is a time travel, but it’s more about what that means psychologically than technologically. Highly recommended.

Carter Beats The Devil (Glen David Gold) – A fictionalized biography of stage magician Charles Joseph Carter, this is a real page-turner, especially if you like the attention to historical detail. I quite enjoyed it, despite the rather abrupt ending.

Daemonomania (John Crowley) – Book Three of the Aegypt cycle. This one was slow going and hard to get into, but it really picks up in the middle. The costume party towards the end of the book is all worth it, as is the mission to rescue Rosie’s daughter Sam from the cultish Powerhouse. Crowley may be accused of injecting the mystic into the mundane in an artificial way, but I think what this book did was show how desperate circumstances amplify and distort our perceptions to make events seem mysterious or magical.

Tango (Slawomir Mrozek) – a somewhat absurdist allegory about reactionary tendencies. The setting is a rather bohemian family living in a house in disarray, with the father Stromil putting on ridiculous art shows (“experiments”) and ignoring the fact that his wife is cheating on him with a roustabout, Eddie. All of this is very frustrating to Arthur, his son, who longs for a return to the old classical ways. He gets his way by holding them to higher standards at gunpoint, but then realizes the futility of it all. I imagine it’s funnier performed with more dramaturgical context. It takes place between the wars, so that clearly has something to do with it, but my play-reading chops are not up to snuff to say anything insightful.

Complexity and Information (J. F. Traub and A. G. Werschulz) – a gentle, if scattered, introduction to information based complexity, which I had heard about but didn’t really know too much about. It somehow feels “old fashioned” to me (perhaps that’s the machine learning kool-aid speaking), with comparisons to Turing machines and so on. But the central question of how to appropriately estimate integrals from samples is pretty interesting, given my recent forays into using MCMC.

Readings

Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis, The Shape of Inner Space — This book was about the Calabi conjecture, Calabi-Yau manifolds, string theory, and all that jazz. It’s supposed to be for a general/lay audience, but I found it rather daunting and often confusing. Perhaps I know just enough math to get confused, whereas other readers might gloss over things. I definitely would not recommend it to those without some serious mathematical background (like a few college classes). That being said, I found it pretty interesting, and now I know (kind of) what a Calabi-Yau space is.

Donald G. Saari, Decisions and Elections : Explaining the Unexpected — This sums up a large chunk of the analysis of social choice problems and voting systems done by Donald Saari. It’s a bit overwritten for my taste and veers between some mathematical formalism and a chatty form of argumentation. I don’t think I fit in the right “audience” for this book, which is part of the problem. It discusses Arrow’s Theorem and Sen’s Theorem via a bunch of examples and spends a fair bit of time on the “paradoxes” and perversities of different choice systems. The chattiness makes it feel less than systematic. Towards the end Saari puts on more of an advocate hat and argues that symmetry (in a particular sense) is a desirable property of election systems and puts out a case for the Borda count. That in a sense is the least convincing part of the book. This might be a good present for a precocious high school student, since the math is not so complicated but there are a lot of ideas to chew on in there.

Hannu Nurmi, Voting Procedures under Uncertainty — This also fits into the “slightly math-y books for political scientists” genre, so I found it insufficiently math-y. It’s a survey of different models of uncertainty in voting procedures and a survey of the work in that area. As such, it discusses alternatives to “traditional” social choice theory including Euclidean models of preference and so on. There’s a little more “survey” and less “integrating the different perspectives” but that’s ok. I am not sure who should read it, but it did point out some new literatures of which I had previously been unaware.

Moez Draif and Laurent Massoulié, Epidemics and Rumors in Complex Networks — A nice and compact introduction to rumor-spreading processes, including branching processes, small world graphs, SIS/SIR type models, and concluding with some models for “viral marketing.” I really liked this book because it was concise and to the point, but others may find that it lacks some context and connections to literature with which they are familiar. It doesn’t feel like a tutorial in that respect, but it’s self-contained and great for someone who has seen some of the material before but not all of it.

John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Primrose Path — Reading Rumpole short stories is kind of like relaxing in a pair of old slippers. Enjoyable, but probably not his best work.

Readings

The Gangster We Are All Looking For (lê thi diem thúy) — This is a fragmented and short narrative of a young Vietnamese immigrant to the US and her time growing up in various neighborhoods in San Diego. It’s the KPBS One Book, One San Diego selection so there were 25 copies at the library. The little vignettes are fleeting but touching, but in a sense you don’t feel that the narrator is particularly introspective, at least not in a direct way. However, I think it was definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than to hear her unique perspective.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (Jonathan Coe) — A satirical novel which came recommended but which in the end I felt cheated by. Maxwell Sim embarks on a new job after a recent divorce and few months off for depression, and ends up learning new things about himself and his family. He’s a bit of a loser, to be honest, but in the end you kind of feel for him as he muddles through emails, old letters, facebook, and the like. What is a big cheat is the ending, in which the author (!) appears. Blech.

Symmetry and Its Discontents (Sheridan Zabell) — A lovely collection of essays on the philosophy, history, and mathematics of symmetry assumptions in problems of induction. The last two chapters are especially good as they discuss a bit of the history and background of such things as Good-Turing estimators and exchangeable partition processes. I learned about this book a while ago from Susan Holmes at the AIM Workshop on estimating probability distributions.

Electronic Elections (R. Michael Alvarez and Thad E. Hall) — A short but dense book that makes the case for a “risk management” approach to assessing the value of electronic voting machines. Electronic voting machines have all sorts of benefits, including better accessibility for the disabled, no “hanging chads,” and so on. But they are also woefully unsecure and hackable, as has been demonstrated time and again by computer security folks. Alvarez and Hall feel like the CS folks are being unfair and think (in a very nebulous way) that the benefits outweigh the risks. I found the data about voter confusion and error rates, etc. interesting, but I think the authors completely miss the point of the security community’s critique of electronic voting systems. Designing a shoddy electronic voting system is bad, regardless of the purported benefits.